Navigating Through a Universal Crisis: Reflections from an ‘Un’forgettable 2020

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.  

In January of this year, I was traveling for business through China, Malaysia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates— a trip that took place against the backdrop of an unexplained respiratory illness spreading rapidly in the eastern side of the world. Being on the ground then, I had a strange feeling this was going to be a major disruption.

Fast-forward to March 10th in Mentor, Ohio, where I was visiting Avery Dennison’s North American headquarters. Watching the news that evening, I saw infections exponentially increasing around the world. Cities were locking down. Pro and college sports seasons were cancelled. International borders were shutting down, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was taking a nosedive, and life as we knew it was grinding to a screeching halt. That’s when it really hit me that 2020 was going to be a year like no other.

The pandemic has likely been the greatest challenge many of us have faced in our lifetime—or at least is way up there. For some, this year brought great difficulty and loss. And although we will be grappling with COVID-19 for months to come, it is worth pausing to reflect on how all of us have come through the challenges of 2020.

At Avery Dennison, we’ve learned valuable lessons as a business. The first wave of the pandemic, especially, was like multiple executive MBA degrees in crisis management, a master class in being agile, decisive, creative, and resilient. The irony of a crisis is that navigating life at its worst can bring out your best. Necessity is indeed the mother of all inventions.

As leaders, we were reminded of the importance of steadfastness—of leading from a place of calm and optimism in order to infuse your team with the same assurance that everything will be alright at the end. We saw how transparency —through constant two-way communication, with no topic off-limits—builds trust and team cohesion.

We also saw a significant increase in our efficiencies, finding that we could do more with less in ways we likely never would have attempted if COVID hadn’t forced us to. I am confident that these lessons won’t fade with the pandemic. Most will be hardwired into our day-to-day business processes going forward.

A pleasant surprise of the pandemic was a sizable year-over-year jump in our team’s employee engagement scores, which we use to measure job satisfaction and a feeling of inclusiveness. Despite everything our teams endured this year—including working from home, relentlessly supporting essential supply chains, and the daily challenges of delivering for customers on time and in full during a pandemic—a high percentage of our team expressed great satisfaction with their jobs. Their response affirms my conviction that it is supremely important for every one of us to have a clear sense of purpose and engagement in addition to a commitment to customer-centricity, strong financial results, and keeping each other safe and healthy. This year, our urgent mission was to help maintain the essential packaging and logistics supply chains for food, medicine, e-commerce and other essential products that people worldwide rely on every day—a powerful motivator. We saw clearly that when people have a sense of purpose, and feel like valued and included contributors with a voice at the table, they give it their all.  

Working under the extreme pressure of the pandemic, we discovered what we are capable of as a team. And now we will always know what it was like to carry on through a crisis. We’ll have what Avery Dennison’s CEO Mitch Butier calls “muscle memory” of the experience, which will serve us, and our customers, for years to come.

This year also affirmed that innovation should and will never stop, even during a downturn. Great companies invest during slow times. In our case, we doubled down and ring-fenced major sustainability and innovation initiatives. We could easily have parked those projects until we were out of the woods of the pandemic. But the thing is, there will always be woods. Today it’s the pandemic. Tomorrow, it will be something else. As my experience has taught me, change is the only constant. We should always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

Our desire to be a force for good should never rest, either. This year, our team might have been forgiven for not having the bandwidth, energy, or financial wherewithal to raise money for people in the communities where we live and work. But our Month of Giving campaign, which benefitted UNICEF, was a fantastic success. Our employees came up with countless ways to fundraise—selling holidays and raffle tickets, holding quiz contents and bake-offs, you name it. As a result, they raised more than €43,000, which our leadership matched and rounded up to €100,000. The funds will help support about 30,000 children and their families through the pandemic. Choosing a universal cause that everyone could enthusiastically get behind—in this case, the well-being of children—was key to the outpouring of support during this hard time.

So after all the challenges of 2020, what lies ahead in 2021? We are cautiously optimistic that we’ll see movement toward semi-normalization by mid-year, now that COVID-19 vaccination programs are getting under way in some countries. That said, I believe many of COVID’s disruptions—including working from home for many employees, the G-force-inducing acceleration of e-commerce and contactless transactions, digitalization, and the optimization of manufacturing—are here to stay, and are ultimately to the good.

At Avery Dennison, we’ll be doubling down on our customer-centric approach based on what we learned in 2020. A few bumps in the road during the first wave of the pandemic reminded us how vital it is to listen even more closely to our customers, to over-communicate and to intimately collaborate. It reminded us of the importance of continued humility, and of being of service. 

We’ll also be working hard to speed our progress in diversity and inclusion. A recent Financial Times survey of employees in 16 European countries ranked us 210th out of 850 in that area. Not a bad starting position, but our aspiration is to move into the top 10 percent. But beyond the metrics, it is really about embedding diversity and inclusion into our DNA.

As I mentioned, we’ll also be launching major sustainability initiatives in early 2021 as we accelerate innovation in that area and further our commitment to creating a circular economy and a company and industry known for regeneration. 

I would wager that everyone reading this learned valuable lessons of their own this year. I look forward to hearing about them as I connect with many of you in 2021. 

As for me, when I face a seemingly overwhelming challenge in the future, I’ll just think back to that day in Mentor on March 10th, and remember how, working together, we got through the great test that was 2020. I remain a strong believer that if you go into any unfortunate situation with great scenario-planning, positivity, optimism and a creative mindset, you will always create opportunities and come out stronger on the other side. The harder and smarter we work, the luckier we get.

I’m sincerely grateful for the lessons we all learned this year. I’m grateful for my teammates regionally and globally, and for our customers, suppliers and ecosystem partners. As we all muster our resolve for what we fervently hope will be the last stretch of the pandemic, I wish all of you a safe and joyous holiday season, and a peaceful and prosperous 2021.